All things picky eating – off the beaten track with Judith & Nat
I loved being interviewed by Natalie, Go-to-Girl, on Friday. We were talking all things picky eating, but got to go off the beaten track and talk about topics that are not as widely discussed.
Let’s look at some of the highlights and I’ll also add some things I wished I’d said at the time (perfect hindsight!).
Picky eating and stress
Nat – how stressful is picky eating? On a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the most stressful.
Judith – for many parents it’s a 5 plus! For many parents, for example, their first thought upon waking in the morning, is “what am I going to feed my child for dinner?”.
Parents I have spoken to have a 6, year old and are already worried about how their child is going to cope at camp when they are 10.
Picky eating is like that, it is such a big part of life and can start to dominate all of our thoughts.
We feed a child 5 times per day, 7 days per week!
Fussy eating can have a huge impact on the family and the child. Most social occasions revolve around food – get togethers, parties, restaurants, and sleepovers. Then there are the camps and travel.
Food is top of the list of challenges each time the parent of a picky eater plans something. What is my child going to be able to eat? Which is why parents do pack a suitcase of plain pasta to take to Thailand on holidays when they are concerned that otherwise their child may go hungry.
Picky eating and judgment
Nat – now we’re out of lockdown and able to get out and about and eat elsewhere, there is the concern about both what to feed our child and also the judgments of others.
Judith – judgment is a huge thing. Parents of picky eaters have to contend with it all the time. In fact, I speak to many families where they are really uncomfortable admitting to me what their child does or doesn’t eat as they are so used to the criticism.
Judgment is an ugly additional burden to carry around and causes additional and unnecessary stress. Not only is a parent struggling around food for their child, but they are also wanting to protect them and themselves from the censure of others.
It is very easy to look across at a child who only seems to eat chicken nuggets and assume it’s because the parent is lazy and doesn’t bother to give them broccoli. Thinking that the eating issues are obviously the parent’s “fault”.
The reality is very different. In fact, all the parents I speak to are really concerned about their child’s diet and also how limiting it is on a lot of levels. They also tend to work a lot harder than parents with a child that eats competently.
It is far more difficult to cater to a child with rigid food parameters than one who eats pretty much everything you serve.
To watch the original interview: https://www.youtube.com/embed/_UZJaYe39yk
Myth busting – will children grow out of picky eating?
Nat – we were talking earlier about some picky eating myths. Can we bust a few of those?
Judith – one of the most commonly repeated myths is that children will grow out of picky eating. And sure, some of them will, but also there are many that just won’t.
There are some pretty scary facts around this too. Feeding experts around the world agree that 5 – 10% of all children, have a picky eating challenge so severe that they will never grow out of it without intervention.
Personally, I have seen this in action. I have worked with 9 families from the local school, all of whom had challenges far greater than just a bit of a fussy phase.
In fact, extreme picky eaters often go backwards rather than forward and start to drop foods that were previously eaten, so waiting for them to grow out of it makes things worse.
Myth busting – if we serve what we want them to eat, they’ll get hungry enough and eat it
Nat – any more myths?
Judith – this is another super common myth. That if we only serve our child the foods we’d love them to eat, eventually they will get hungry enough and eat them.
Firstly, there are some scary statistics around this. Upwards of 4% of children (and it could be as high as 11%) will actually starve themselves, rather than eat something that is not in their comfort zone.
But my thought is not about whether the “hungry enough” works or does not as a strategy. It is about the other side of the food equation. Which is, that food is about joy and family and pleasure.
If we are starving someone to force them into doing something, how does this build a love of food?
Shouldn’t we be doing the opposite and showing them how enjoyable food can be?
Best age to work with picky eater?
Nat – is there a certain age that is best to work with a picky eater? If you catch them before a specific time does it make it easier?
Judith – eating is very much horses for courses so there really is not a magical time when it’s best to work with a family or where there is a cut-off and you’ve missed the boat.
Even with an 8 – 12, year old, it is not too late. Yes, in some ways they have years of habits, but they also have more stable emotions, we can converse with them and we can get them onside. Working together as a team is a beautiful way to resolve issues.
Nat – so we’re empowering them!
Judith – absolutely, it’s great to work with older children.
On the other hand, there are also positives to working with younger children. It is good to get things rolling before there are years of habits and before they start to get very rigid around not just what foods, but often how they are served and eaten.
Even for teens there is often a way that we can work in tandem with them and teach them new ways to approach and to manage foods.
Case study – the vision
Nat – after working with families up and down the country, is there a case study you’d like to share with us?
Judith – I have so many stories and love to retell them to give other parents hope.
One of my favourite stories is of a 4, year old girl who was surviving on peanut butter on cruskits for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is no need to explain how stressful this was for her parents!
Their daughter had had an undiagnosed food allergy for quite a while so eating foods was very uncomfortable. Logically, she had dropped many foods as they did not make her feel well and so she had ended up with a very limited diet.
We changed the food dynamic and within a week she was adding things to her menu like sausages. But the real magic was not that she could eat new foods, although that was fabulous. It was that she became interested in food and enjoyed it and was relaxed around it. This was where the real magic was.
Changing the food dynamic
Nat – so you talk about changing the food dynamic. Can we dive a little deeper into that?
Judith – changing the dynamic is a HUGE topic!
Many parents are looking for the perfect food, that one magic food that will stop their child from being so fussy. Their child will grab that food, be able to eat it comfortably and all will be well.
Unfortunately, eating does not work like that. In fact, it is great to understand a little about how eating does work so we can support our child.
If we go to a restaurant and are served a new chicken dish with a strange tomato sauce, we look at it, we think about it and we go through a series of decisions in our mind. It is a very logical thought process.
If our picky child sees that chicken dish they think “new, no”. There is no thought, no analysis, it is a gut reaction. This decision is not made by the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain), but the instinct driven, stay safe part of the brain.
If we serve new foods to our child and expect them to be able to eat them, as we would, we are probably setting ourselves up for a fail. Part of success is looking for different ways to approach things.
The way we do introduce food can have a real impact on the outcome.
For example, if we ask any picky eater on the planet “would you rather eat these crackers that are your favourites, or this other food that you haven’t eaten before?”, it is obvious what the answer will be!
So much of success revolves around the way we market and “sell” things.
At the end of the first workshop I ever ran, one of the mums came up to me and said “before the workshop, I felt that the issues were 95% my son and 5% me. Now I’m thinking it’s 75% me”.
This is not though about parents doing anything “wrong”, it is about the approach. We discuss this more in the next section.
Why parents benefit from a vision
Nat – it is important to see the vision!
Judith – that is the perfect way to view this.
When parents discover they have a picky eater their first thought is “how do I fix this?”. They look for solutions, find some advice and try something.
Often this does not work, so they look for the next option. Over time they experiment with different approaches and different strategies and often these are stressful for everyone, fail, or even make the fussy eating worse.
This starts to build an impression that nothing works, and nothing will work for their child, which in turn, leads to passivity. Parents with experiences that all lead to failure begin to stop believing that they can help.
Nat – then they travel through all the picky eating myths.
Judith – absolutely, they think “it will get better once they are at school” or “they will grow out of it”.
But in fact, as they have stopped doing anything differently their approach has, in effect, changed.
They have stopped trying and this often translates to not offering new foods.
Not because they do not care or do not want to try, but because experience tells them it won’t work.
Nat – you said that most parents feel their child is the worst eater.
Judith – yes, 95% of people who come to me believe their child is the most stubborn, is going to be the biggest challenge in regards to eating.
Children who are sensitive to other things are also sensitive around food
Nat – you said in another interview that children who are sensitive to other things can also be sensitive around food?
Judith – true! Over 80% of children with ASD also have food challenges. If a child has sensory sensitivities, they are also more likely to struggle with food. If something feels funny in the hands, it is going to be far more confronting in the mouth.
Children who are generally anxious can often channel that into the food. If we go back to when they are littlies, there are only three things they can control, eating, sleeping and toileting.
This often leads to sub-consciously managing to feel in control via the food. Long term this can become habit.
This is also the reason many fussy eaters prefer processed food. It is very comforting as that cracker today, is the same as that cracker next week. A stew on the other hand is a mixture of ingredients and smells and can be overwhelming.
How long does it take to get results?
Nat – how long on average does it take to get results with a family?
Judith – there is no average time frame as there is no average child, or average parent. But every family I work with sees progress within the first week.
It can often work more quickly with older children and I have seen almost “miracles” on a regular enough basis to mention it. A child of 8, or older, is aware that they are different, that they are not able to eat comfortably and are starting to see how it can be isolating.
I use an analogy where it is almost like they are in a deep hole and desperate to climb out of it, but do not know how. Parents come along with a plan, which is like a rope into the hole, and the child grabs hold of that rope and pulls themselves up. Almost saying “well thank goodness you got a plan, so now I can get out!”
With a preschooler, it is always going to be more of a roller-coaster as that’s a fit for their age and stage!
Taking a step backwards though, I’d like to explain my box analogy as it’s a great way to understand fussy eating a little better:
Picky eaters have a box, and inside that is all the foods they like to eat. Outside of the box is spiders. This is why many of the strategies that work for competent eaters do not work for extremely selective eaters.
“If you eat this you can have ice cream” – “spiders”. “If you don’t eat this, you’ll be hungry” – “spiders”.
The goal is to enable a child to gradually step outside of the box and say, “that was OK”. The more a child can do this, the more confident they become, and the bigger the box gets.
How long this takes really does depend on the child and their situation.
We wish we’d found you sooner!
Nat – I bet you have a lot of parents who say “I wish I’d found you sooner”
Judith – I speak to parents every week who say this, and many who say they wish I’d been around when their children were younger!
Many people just don’t know I’m here as I believe I am the only person in NZ who offers this service.
Parents are also told by their GP that their child is growing so will be fine and to wait. Relatives often have a story about “Uncle Mick” who only ate Vegemite toast and is now OK. Again the message is to sit back and let things run their course. Friends give other parents the fail-safe solution that worked for their fussy children, so there is always a reason to delay taking action.
Unfortunately, waiting often means we go backwards instead of forwards and that we’re embedding habits that work against us.
My advice is “if you think there is a problem, you are usually right”. Parents almost always know when something is not working and are the ones best placed to make that decision.
Dinner times are not great
Nat – I have a question here from Haley. “Nothing has worked for my son and mealtimes when I serve healthy food often result in anger and upset for my 6, year old”
Judith – that’s a really common situation.
I know that by dinnertime I am often cranky and low on energy and tolerance. Our children have had a full day of stimulation and overwhelm too so dinner is not a great place to be teaching a child how to eat. It is best to do this away from the table or at other times.
Nat – that’s great to know as a parent. Realising we don’t have to focus on our child eating at dinner takes the pressure off and we can enjoy the meal.
Judith – spot on. Dinner is a time to relax and bond with our child. If we do this, we often find the atmosphere is better and the more relaxed we are, the more likely we are to eat.
A good way to think about this is, if you are out for dinner with your partner and you’re arguing, you are not going to be focused on eating. If you are stressed about something, you are not going to be focused on eating.
Similarly, if you were out for an extended family meal and everyone was focused on you eating and commenting on whether you were going to eat the broccoli, why you’d only had one bite of the chicken etc., it would not make for a pleasant meal. And yet, we often do this with our child.
Nat – but this comes from a place of love and caring.
Judith – yes, absolutely, we all want our child to eat well. A good way to think about this is that anything that would feel uncomfortable for us, probably feels the same for them. Remembering that anything that increases a child’s discomfort makes eating more challenging.
What’s one thing a family can do to create a confident eater?
Nat – is there one step a family can take that will improve eating?
Judith – This is a two-step answer!
1. As a parent it’s critical we believe there is a solution for our child, and they can overcome their picky eating – they can!
2. There is a reason I’m The Confident Eater. We are confident our child can eat more widely (because they can). If we are not confident, how can they be?
They are watching us to understand how to behave.
Let’s think in terms of reading or swimming. If we have a 2, year old that is unable to swim and we take them to the pool, we only ever speak positives (even though they may be freaking out about how cold and scary it is).
If we have a 7, year old who is struggling around reading, we never say “oh, he’s rubbish at reading”. It’s important to feel the same way about eating and to reframe the way we look at things.
Rather than focus on what they are not able to do, looking for the things they can and then extending from there. If they are able to joyfully eat crackers, toast and nuggets, what is that next step?
Nat – it’s the empowered language
Judith – correct, language is so important as is changing the way we look at picky eating.
Nat – you offer a complimentary confidence consultation
Judith – yes, I do. This is a great way for you to discover what’s happening in your family around food, and why and then look for solutions.
I have a menu (thanks Nat for the great word) of programs to suit families and budgets.
Parents are almost always the ones best placed to work with their child. No one is more invested, knows a child as well or spends as much time as a parent. Once they have the tools, parents can make all the difference.
Nat – I feel I sometimes get to an impasse with something and want someone to tell me what to do and I’ll just do it. Parents get to that point where it is time, it is time to call in the expert.
Judith – I LOVE to help parents achieve their goals and you are correct. Having someone look at a situation objectively is a great start. From there we build a plan that is personalised, and shows a parent in simple, gentle steps how to move forwards.
If you’d love more help check out the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/theconfidenteater/
The group – Creating Confident Eaters – is a lot more intimate. Mini workshops, your questions answered and more support: https://www.facebook.com/groups/222522335605100/
Creating Confident Eaters – THE guide for picky eating. A great start to shift from the crackers, toast, plain pasta: https://theconfidenteater.com/buy-book-the-confident-eater/
If you’d like to book a Complimentary Confidence Consultation we’d love to talk to you: https://theconfidenteater.com/buy-book-the-confident-eater/
Judith is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters. My dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
I delight in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. I graduated from Cambridge University and have qualifications in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently working towards a Masters degree in Psychology. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.